Photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

Photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

For George Kittle, decision to return from injury was a no-brainer

Dec 24, 2020 at 4:56 PM--

With just two games left to play in the regular season and no chance for the team to make the playoffs, the San Francisco 49ers could have just decided to play it safe with All-Pro tight end George Kittle and sit him out the rest of the way instead of putting him back on the field after missing the last six games with a fractured bone in his foot.

But the team decided not to go that route, choosing instead to leave the door open for Kittle to return this week against the Arizona Cardinals (4:30 p.m. EST/1:30 p.m. PST, Saturday). The 49ers announced Friday they would be giving Kittle the green light to return, and not surprisingly he showed no hesitation in jumping at the opportunity.

"He (49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan) asked me if I wanted to play, and I said, 'Hell yes,'" Kittle told reporters Thursday. "He said, 'Sounds good.' That was our conversation."

Why make a return at this stage of the season? For Kittle, the reason was simple -- he didn't want to see his season come to an end due to an injury, nor did he want to see it end on a low note.

"That's why I'm coming back -- because I have a very sour taste in my mouth," Kittle said. "I hate losing football games and I hate it when I don't perform on a high level. Ending on an injury's not very fun, and I know anybody could say that who's missed games. So the fact I get two opportunities, especially against division opponents, and let them know that I'm still here and I will be for multiple years to come -- I'm really excited about getting the chance to play these next two weeks."

Kittle solidified himself as a significant piece of the present and future for the 49ers after signing a contract extension in August worth $75 million over five years. Some might see that investment being put at risk this week, but the 49ers don't feel there's any chance of Kittle having a setback.

"We wouldn't put him out at all if there was any risk of him re-injuring this or he wasn't healed," Shanahan said Thursday. "We've got a lot of guys going out there and everyone's got stuff on the line every time they step out, whether there's two weeks left and you're not in the playoffs or whether it's the first game of the year. That's what these guys do, and if they'll healthy enough to do it, that's what you do on our team."

Even though Kittle has been given the go-ahead to play when the 49ers face the Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Saturday, chances are he won't be given a full workload due to the fact he's not quite in football shape. Kittle will be able to give his best effort when he is on the field, but he hasn't been able to rehab his injury the way he'd like to, which might leave him huffing and puffing a bit during the game.

"The tough thing about when you break a foot during COVID is you can't really condition inside," Kittle said. "You can't use cardio equipment. So the only conditioning I could physically do was running, and I couldn't run until about a couple of weeks ago. I was a little out of shape, I probably still am, but you're going to see a lot of effort out of me out there and it's going to be fun."

Shanahan suggested Kittle would be limited in the number of reps he plays Saturday, although he hesitated to let reporters know exactly what he was thinking on that matter.

"He's in great shape and he's conditioned very well, but he hasn't been playing a lot of football here in a while," Shanahan said. "We've got to be smart with that. We don't expect him to go in there and play ninety-five percent of the plays like he usually does."

Whether he plays for most of the game or just a fraction, Kittle will be more than thrilled to be back with his teammates on game day instead of sitting in the press box wearing a mask. And he should provide a boost for a 49ers team that needs one after losing six of the last seven games.

"Practice has gone great. I'm feeling really good," Kittle said. "I'm excited to be back on the field. I've missed football. Sitting out for six weeks is not very fun."

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